Sustainable travel: Travellers know that it is time for the nature of travel to change

We might have to look hard to find silver linings in a pandemic, but I think there's one beautiful, unexpected thing that has come out of the past 18 months.


International borders are being flung open with a rapidity that seemed unimaginable even a few weeks ago. Airlines are boosting their capacity, not only to reunite far-flung families at last but to bring back tourists to our shores. (Remember when they said it would take years for planes to fly to Australia in any kind of significant number?)

Miracle of miracles, we are actually allowed out of our country again, for whatever reason we choose. No more judgments. No more prohibitive quarantine. No more tedious applications and heartbreaking rejections.

But the hope I'm talking about is not the expectation that we can resume travel in the same way we did before. I think most of us know that's not very likely, that for a while at least it will be more complicated. Beyond this, we know we must think differently about our travel choices, the why and how.

The COP26 negotiations, which start this weekend in Glasgow, have galvanised the world's attention on the kind of planet we will have if we don't do enough to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial revolution levels. Terrifyingly, we're currently on a trajectory towards 2.7 degrees unless radical action is taken.

Travellers know this. They know tourism is responsible for eight per cent of the greenhouse gasses that are creating climate change, much of that relating to the transport we use to get to our destinations. Many want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Skyscanner has just carried out an extensive survey taken with YouGov a UK market research company that examines Australian travellers' attitudes towards the idea of travelling better, with a lighter footprint. Some 76 per cent of Australians surveyed agreed strongly that making travel more sustainable was vital.

A majority 59 per cent responded that this is out of a conviction that it is everyone's responsibility to give back to society and take care of the planet; 49 per cent said they would consider offsetting their travel the next time they booked a flight, with 41 per cent saying they would pay more for a flight with greater eco-credentials.


But we have this big carbon cloud over our head and a government determined to continue to dig up, export and burn fossil fuels, a practice the UN Environment Program says is dangerously out of sync with climate action targets. "Carbon zero by 2050" is just a slogan if it's not accompanied by determined action in the next decade. Cutting carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 is no longer seen as radical, but the minimum we need to do to halt catastrophic warming.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by this. In the face of all this social and political turmoil, what difference does it make if a traveller chooses to carbon offset their flights or stay in a resort that operates on 100 per cent renewable technologies? Surely this is just whistling in the wind?

Firstly, being a "good" traveller is never the wrong thing. There's so much that can be positive about travel in itself, in distributing wealth, supporting local communities and being ambassadors for change. Our experiences are richer for it.

Now here's the hope part.

In March 2020 when so much about the pandemic was unknown and frightening, there was talk of vaccines being the solution, but most experts cautioned that an effective and certified vaccine was years away. Even if a suitable vaccine was discovered, trialling it, gaining regulatory approval for it and finally manufacturing and distributing it was a long haul. Most pundits agreed we probably wouldn't get an effective vaccine in arms for two or three years - at the earliest.

We are sitting in outdoor cafes, seeing our distant families and friends, and booking flights for 2022 because science, government, health professionals, non-profit organisations and business worked together to make vaccines happen and distribute them. And we didn't only get one vaccine, but many.

When I step onto my next flight, I will be doing it with the confidence of having vaccines in my arm. And immense gratitude for the privilege.

There are still problems – the rollout is unequal around the world, which must be addressed urgently - but it's a powerful demonstration of what happens when there is international resolve to fix a crisis that seems insurmountable.

It's the same with climate. We can solve this. The technologies are there. When governments, business, scientists and people act in concert it can be done.

Travellers have a huge role to play in this. And not only by the travel choices we make.

The biggest lever we can pull is to exercise our superpower – our beautiful, democratic right, where we have it - to vote out those governments that not only refuse to take clear action on climate now but actively promote policies that propel us towards a dystopian future.

This is not political. It's existential.

We don't want the moon to be our only holiday option.

Twitter @missleetulloch